Welcome to this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief… items in our queue in this edition include 1) what caused a recent incident that led to smoke and other dangers aboard the International Space Station, 2) outdated Russian hardware that has been causing similar problems in recent months, and 3) what Russian officials have said about much-needed upgrades for many expired components aboard the space station.
With that all out of the way, it’s time to head back to the International Space Station, where another concerning incident that occurred earlier this week points to deeper problems for the United States, Russia, and other partner nations who carry out operations on board.
Trouble on the ISS… Again.
Trouble ensued aboard the International Space Station again in recent days, following reports of an incident involving smoke and the smell of burning plastic that triggered alarms onboard the spacecraft.
Reports indicate that the incident appears to have stemmed from outdated systems aboard the Zvezda Service Module (Salyut DOS-8), a Russian-built module that provides life support systems and living space for the crew aboard the ISS. Zvezda is the centerpiece of the Russian Orbital Segment of the ISS, and it serves as the location for assemblies when emergencies occur onboard the spacecraft.
The appearance of smoke and burning odors were detected while recharging the batteries aboard the ISS, according to Russia’s space agency Roscosmos.
The incident occurred in advance of a spacewalk scheduled for Thursday, which continued as planned.
“Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov of Roscosmos concluded their spacewalk at 6:16 p.m. EDT after 7 hours and 25 minutes,” read an update at NASA’s Space Station Blog.
“It was the second of up to 11 spacewalks to prepare the new Nauka multipurpose laboratory module for operations in space,” the post stated. During their spacewalk, cosmonauts Novitskiy and Dubrov connected televisions and rendezvous systems, along with other equipment that recently arrived at the ISS via the Nauka module which, as recent events have shown, has experienced problems of its own as of late.
The Nauka Incident, Revisited
This was not the only concerning incident to have occurred on the ISS in recent weeks. As previously reported in The Intelligence Brief in early August, it had been during a recent docking of the Nauka Multipurpose Laboratory Module that its thrusters unexpectedly fired, causing the space station to spin significantly enough that structural damage might have been caused to the spacecraft had the situation not been rectified.
At one point, it seemed that Nauka’s thrusters might have continued to fire until the ISS was back in a position where it could receive commands from a ground station in Russia, from which the command to disengage would have to be issued. Fortunately, the thrusters shut off on their own a short time later, presumably once they ran out of fuel. The incident resulted in the loss of communication for brief periods between the ISS and mission control.
While the Nauka incident had been deemed an “anomaly”, the problems resulting in smoke on the ISS earlier this week point to what could potentially be ongoing concerns for astronauts aboard the ISS going forward.
Ongoing Off-Planet Problems
In early September, Russian state media reported that the ISS faced the prospect of “irreparable failures” from aging hardware onboard the spacecraft. This, according to Vladimir Solovyov, chief engineer at space company Energia, the company that produces Russia’s modules onboard the space station.
According to Solovyov, only around 20 percent of the active systems on Russia’s ISS modules are up-to-date, leaving the rest having passed their expiration dates; a troubling reality in light of the ongoing problems being experienced aboard the ISS in recent weeks, which Roscosmos has previously said would likely prevent the space station from operating safely beyond the next decade.
Additionally, Solovyov warned about cracks located in the cargo areas on Russia’s Zarya which, if left untreated, could become more threatening to activities onboard the ISS in the future.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov similarly warned that “irreversible consequences” and “catastrophe” could result from such oversight.
“We mustn’t let that happen,” Borisov said in an interview with Russian state media earlier this year.
To ensure the future of multi-country efforts in space, one thing seems clear: The International Space Station cannot continue with its current outdated hardware. Add to this Russia’s recent announcement of its plans to cooperate with China and the construction of its own space station in the years ahead, and it becomes even more evident that the United States and its partners must explore new options in terms of maintaining safe operations aboard the ISS in the future.
In short, it’s high time the space station got an upgrade.